Ben Stiller’s ‘Morning at Wal-Mart’

By Sadie Bass

Jun 5, 2009 12:47pm

ABC's Charlie Herman reports from Fayetteville, AR: Marching bands, cheerleaders, and steppers .  A gospel choir singing the national anthem.  Ben Stiller emceeing.  Miley Cyrus singing.  American Idol winner Kris Allen crooning.  And a brief visit from Michael Jordan. It’s Wal-Mart’s annual shareholder meeting-via-pep rally in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with nearly 16,000 screaming and cheering guests in attendance. But it wasn’t all bread and circus.  There were financial presentations and shareholder proposals to votes on as well as a presentation by the company’s new CEO, Mike Duke.   Duke used his speech to tell the audience that the economic crisis has brought a “fundamental shift in consumer attitudes and behavior.” He declared “there is a ‘new normal’ in which people want to save money and are getting smarter about saving money.” Duke said this new reality presents an opportunity for Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer and private employer, to expand as other companies struggle in the current recession, especially the company’s competitors such as Target and Costco who have seen their sales drop. “We must seize this moment in time,” said Duke who later added, “Never has here been a time when the strengths of our company were more aligned with what the world needs than right now.” The stars have aligned for Wal-Mart in the current downturn.  Three years ago, the company announced it would reduce the number of stores it planned to open and instead focus on refurbishing existing stores through measures such as reducing clutter and clearing central aisles, lowering sight lines, and in some cases, selling fewer but more popular items. The changes came into full effect just as the recession hit consumers who started buying only necessities and looking for them at lower prices. But what was lacking from the speeches and presentations, as well as a tour of Wal-Mart stores for the media the day before, were specifics about just how Wal-Mart plans to continue expanding its business domestically and abroad.   “This is not a time to take comfort in our success.  This is Wal-Mart’s time to look to the future and seize the opportunity to lead around the world,” said Duke. Wal-Mart has succeeded in the face of a global recession described as the worst since the Great Depression.  When the economy begins to grow again, as some believe could happen as early as the end of this year, Wal-Mart will be well-positioned.  But nothing is guaranteed the world of retail.  One significant question is whether or not it can hold on to those consumers who traded down from other stores to shop at Wal-Mart during the recession. Stay tuned.

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